Hello everyone, and happy holidays!
For today's article plus video, I wanted to mix things up a little bit. With Magic's 25th anniversary coming up soon, I figured there was no better time to address one of the question I'm asked almost every time for interviews: "What changed in Magic over the years?"
While my answer usually gravitates towards the evolution of technology, communication and the number of players around the world, I neglect an important side of the story which is how the power level of the cards evolved.
To make sure I didn't miss the point, I asked coverage caster Riley Knight to travel back in time with me to 1998. It was the time of my first Pro Tour Top 8, and here's the deck I was playing:
In a format dominated by Sligh—the original name for mono-red aggro—and Mono-Blue Control (think Whispers of the Muse, Forbid, Nevinyrral's Disk and friends), that deck was perfectly positioned. Unfortunately, I faced Brian Selden (the eventual World Champion) whose Survival of the Fittest-Recurring Nightmare deck was better suited for the mirror. I lost that match but always wondered what would have happened had I played Ben Rubin in the finals of the tournament.
Ben Rubin played the following list:
Riley and I played the would-have-been match in the first part of the video. For today's standards, this deck does look like rubbish. The overall quality of creatures is dramatically low. Jackal Pup, the red Savannah Lion with a huge downside, was the star of the deck. And since Grizzly Bears were too good, Sligh was running a worse version in the form Ironclaw Orcs. To fill the one-drop slots it had to play Goblin Vandal, a slightly improved Mon's Goblin Raiders.
Even with all these "top performers" Sligh was no laughing matter at the time: Fireblast and Ball Lightning alongside more burn spells made quick work of a slow opponent.
(Spoiler for the match: My Living Death deck, designed by Marc Hernandez ('96 World Championship runner up) would have crushed Rubin's Sligh, as intended. It wouldn't have been close.)
But how would my deck have fared against a Sligh on Steroids—today's Ramunap Red?
Without thinking too much about it, I thought I stood a chance. I mean, Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare is an insane combo, albeit it's also a bit slow. (Another spoiler alert: Ramunap Red didn't give me a chance to stabilize or setup my late game.)
I recognize my play wasn't optimal. Turn 1 Vampiric Tutor was bad, and I sacrificed a token for no reason in Game 1 among other little things. I hadn't played the deck in 19 years, and I would have needed a few more practice games to figure out the matchup. But I don't think that would have changed the outcome of that game. While the matchup would deserve a few more runs, I'm fairly certain that I was an underdog there.
Ramunap Red's creatures are just too good. Sure Chandra, Torch of Defiance was a problem, but it wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been supported by Rampaging Ferocidon, Hazoret the Fervent or Glorybringer, all of which Wall of Blossoms is pretty bad against.
While this is just a matchup among thousands of others, I think it's representative of the state of Magic design now compared to 20 years ago. We knew creatures had gotten a boost, and spells got nerfed, but by that much? There's a world of difference between Goblin Vandal and Bomat Courier, between Ironclaw Orcs and Earthshaker Khenra—and on the other hand they would never reprint a card as powerful as Fireblast.
As for the Living Death deck, if you had access to its spells in today's standard, I believe the format would not be balanced. Look at how much effort you need to Reanimate a creature these days: have a God Pharaoh's Gift online, or pay five mana for a Zombify spell for one creature. You only needed three mana with Recurring Nightmare. You don't have access to Spirit of the Night or Verdant Force, but you have access to other options such as Chaos Maw, Sifter Wurm and Razaketh, the Foulblooded.
Another big difference between Magic now and then is the lands we have access to. The looming presence of Wasteland already made it difficult for decks to include a lot of nonbasic lands, but even then, the choice was not attractive. For a two-allied-color deck, you could run Ice Age pain lands (like Karplusan Forest) and Tempest stay-tapped lands (like Mogg Hollows)—the latter of which never saw play. Gemstone Mine, Undiscovered Paradise, Reflecting Pool and City of Brass would complete the set, with none of them as great options. The enemy-colored land options were "enters- the-battlefield tapped pain lands" (see Pine Barrens) that would also never see play.
We might complain about the scarcity of good dual lands today, but we have it much better than 20 years ago where the most common mana base was 17 basics and a pair of Wastelands.
The obvious conclusion? Magic is definitely a different game. The design team wanted to put more focus on creatures, which forces us to attack more. Is it better? Is it worse? I guess it's up to everyone to make up their own mind about it. Would you prefer a game with more efficient spells and less efficient creatures?
I hope you enjoyed this quick journey back in time, and if you enjoyed it and want to see more of these "battle through time" videos let me know in the comment section below!
- Raphaël Lévy